The Not So Good Book
According to one online survey, over half of all Christians think killing children is sometimes morally justified. Maybe they were thinking of the Old Testament. So why is it that we so often hear Christians ask atheists where we get our morals and why aren’t we all a bunch of raving psychotics?
Some Christians say they get their morals from the Bible and that all others have to borrow from them. This claim assumes there were no laws or moral codes before the books of the Bible and that none exist currently in areas where people have never even heard of the Bible. The Cuneiform Law, the Code of Urukagina, the Code of Ur-Nammu, the Laws of Eshnunna, the Codex of Lipit-Ishtar, the Code of Hammurabi and the Code of the Nesilim all predate the ancient Israeli laws of the Old Testament. There are also other cultures even today who have moral codes despite never having heard of the Bible.
Following rules set forth in an ancient anthology denies one’s ability to reason out their own moral standards. Do Christians actually offer the other cheek when someone slaps them? Do they stone their children to death for disobedience? When was the last time a Christian gave everything they owned to charity?
There are several morals in the Bible almost no Christian would ever consider following. The books of the Bible merely record the morals and social customs of the times and places in which they were written, that of the authors who wrote them and that of the characters contained within them. Most of these morals are ignored by the Christians who profess to live by them.
Objective Morality is a Contradiction in Terms
Other Christians claim their god has implanted in all of mankind an objective morality, despite the fact different people in different times and cultures have very different morals. One would have thought Yahweh might have implanted in certain Asians and Africans a sense of morality which includes not throwing rocks at people for adultery, chopping off hands for thievery or marrying and having sex with children. Perhaps it might have been a good idea to instill within the priests of the Inquisition a sense of morality that didn’t include setting people on fire.
To say something is objective is to say it is not influenced by feelings or opinion. This is not the case with morality. Two plus two equals four is an example of objectivity. Feelings and opinions are irrelevant to this basic fact of arithmetic. Disagreement is logically impossible. It would be nonsensical to say “But it is my opinion that two plus two equals fifteen.” It would even be nonsensical to say “It is my opinion that two plus two equals four.” No, it’s not an opinion. It’s a fact.
It is equally nonsensical to say “It is a fact that you shouldn’t throw rocks at people.” Morals are, by their very definition, opinions. It is my opinion people shouldn’t throw rocks at others, but some will disagree. Some might say it is objectively dangerous to throw rocks at people, but one must still form the opinion that “danger” is wrong or immoral. Some might say only a lunatic or deviant would disagree, but this is redundant, as it is merely a reflection of the opinion one has of the behavior being discussed. And it should go without saying that stating an opinion about behavior is after all—an opinion—is not an endorsement of said behavior.
Even if there was a god, morals still wouldn’t be objective. A god could exist and deliver a set of morals to an ancient group of goat herders or even implant in humans its set of morals and those morals would still only be the opinions of that particular deity. Anyone who claims morals are objective simply doesn’t understand the definition of either term.
Standards and Deviations
Most people will live our lives without ever raping or killing anyone. So if we don’t get our morals from the Bible or some objective standard, where do they come from?
The two main pillars of morality are reciprocity and empathy, as explained by Frans de Waal here. Most of us have some basic cognitive recognition skills. That is to say, we recognize other organisms like us and understand how they would feel in a given situation by imagining ourselves in the same situation. I don’t set people on fire because I understand it would really suck if someone set me on fire.
Most people wouldn’t hurt an animal for the same reasons. We understand they have emotions and can feel pain. But just like humans, we are more likely to hurt an animal if we feel threatened by it. Our sense of justice and our sense of morality are intertwined. Most mammals exhibit basic empathy for one another and a sense of justice within their societies. This phenomenon is observable in all social beings.
In addition to the basic empathy most of us share, every action has some potential social, economic and/or legal ramifications. We understand the value of healthy relationships and seek mutual benefits from our relationships. If I help my neighbor then they are more likely to help me when and if I need. If I am rude to my neighbor, they are less likely to help me when and if I need.
Although it’s not illegal for me to be rude to a neighbor, other neighbors would be more likely to form negative opinions which will carry social consequences. If I live in a small town, such behavior may even impact my ability to acquire gainful employment. It is when rudeness crosses the line that we have laws to inflict harsher consequences on those who lack empathy and don’t want to play by the rules encouraged by social cohesion.
Along with empathy, there are rewards and consequences for our actions in this world. One need not base their morals on promises of heaven or threats of hell. For if anyone should have their morals shaped only by such threats and promises, they lack empathy and are not moral. They are simply obedient.
Shades of Grey
Those who propose an objective morality often run into trouble when confronted with the fact morality is in many cases not so black and white. Take for instance the countless people worldwide who have been imprisoned for marijuana.
Is smoking pot “immoral”? Does it make a difference if it’s a 38 year old man smoking pot as opposed to a 7 year old boy smoking pot given to him by a 38 year old man? What about euthanasia? Should suffering people be put out of their misery? How much suffering is required to justify euthanasia?
If morality were black and white, there would be no philosophy of ethics, and philosophers would never ponder a situation where their spouse and child are in equal danger and there is only time to save one. Ethical dilemmas such as these will often illicit a contradiction from those claiming objective morality. Ethics and justice are subjective and circumstantial, as explained in this video series by Harvard professor Michael Sandel.
I don’t kill people because I can empathize and because there are social, economic and legal consequences for doing so. There are those few within any society who do not empathize and disregard the consequences, and are usually punished for doing so. I also think for myself and can understand situations whereby I might kill someone for a greater good. I don’t need an ancient book of fables or belief in a cosmic boogeyman to tell me what to do.